Saturday, September 13, 2008

Premier League Preview: Liverpool vs. Manchester United

Mark Hughes may like to think that his Manchester City side’s clash with Chelsea later on Saturday takes star billing in this weekend’s Premier League fixture list, but some 45,000 fans inside Anfield - plus, no doubt, a global TV audience of millions - will beg to differ when Liverpool and Manchester United lock horns again in a lunch-time showdown that will inevitably offer clues about this season‘s title race.

The ‘Clash of the Cash’ at Eastlands in the early evening will be a fascinating encounter for all sports of reasons, but few would accept that a meeting between the North-West’s two red-clad armies is no longer the main event. And while City and Chelsea may boss the richest sugar-daddies in the League, neither Liverpool nor United can be accused of penny-pinching, having this summer alone sunk more than £50 million between them into parting Tottenham from their strike-force.

United‘s deadline-day swoop for Dimitar Berbatov followed Liverpool‘s earlier capture of the Bulgarian‘s erstwhile scoring partner at White Hart Lane, Robbie Keane. Typically, United boss Sir Alex Ferguson sought to lob a psychological doubt into the Liverpool camp by questioning the high price Rafa Benitez was prepared to pay for Keane, a player whose value he has previously implied is somewhat inflated. Fergie’s mischief-making with the press is unlikely to cut much ice at Anfield, where the only sensible response is to ram his words down his throat on the pitch, though that has proved to be easier said than done in recent seasons.

That’s underlined by the fact that United are chasing a sixth successive Premier League victory over their Merseyside rivals, and their third in a row at Anfield. Indeed, Liverpool have suffered more Premier League defeats (18), dropped more points (68) and conceded more goals (48) to Manchester United than to any other club.

Those statistics make painful reading for anyone associated with Liverpool, and one can only imagine what the ghosts of Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley have made of the last 18 seasons. Eighteen, of course, is a highly evocative number in the context of battles between these two giants, separated by 33 miles of East Lancs Road or, if you prefer, M62 motorway.

For while Liverpool can still proudly boast more top-flight English titles - 18 - than any other club, they haven’t added to their haul since 1990. And with consecutive triumphs in the last two seasons, United have closed to within one title of their bitter rivals. When you consider that, at the time Kenny Dalglish’s Reds lifted the club’s 18th title in 1990, United’s tally was a modest seven, the seismic nature of the power-shift in Lancashire can be graphically understood. If United successfully defend their title again this season, they will not only claim an unprecedented second hat-trick of championships, but also equal Liverpool’s record total of titles. That is a prospect almost too awful to contemplate for many Reds fans. Never has Liverpool’s quest for that elusive next title been more urgent.

The good news for Liverpool is that they can go three points clear at the top of the table - for two hours at least - if they can achieve their tenth successive home league victory. To do so at United’s expense would be sweet indeed. United are down in ninth at the moment, partly because they’ve played a game fewer than all except Fulham, their clash wityh the Cottagers having been postponed while they went to Monaco for their ill-fated Super Cup defeat by Zenit St Petersburg.

But United were the only opponents who left Anfield with all three points last season - and Ferguson boasts an unbeaten record against Benitez of seven wins and one draw. Rafa’s one success was in an FA Cup fifth round tie in February 2006.

The context for this match is that both sides have been without most of their squads for ten days because of the international break - and that both will be seeking the boost to morale of a win to carry them into their first Champions League group matches next week.

Inevitably in the build-up to such a big game there have been plenty of comments, and some verbal sniping, from both camps. As noted, Fergie has queried the wisdom of Liverpool’s purchase of Robbie Keane, the Irishman shrugging off the slight by insisting football is a game of opinions - and adding that in his, John O’Shea should start every game for United. Meanwhile, Liverpool defender Alvaro Arbeloa, reflecting on the bitter disappointment of last season’s home defeat by United, claimed that the game is worth much more than three points.

“If we beat Manchester United at home, we will have 10 points and much more confidence, but everyone will also be very, very happy.”

His team-mate Fabio Aurelio (famous among other things for the fact that his surname uses every available vowel), chipped in with: “We need to try and change the history. In recent years, it has been difficult against them, but we have a great opportunity to change that on Saturday.”

Argentine midfielder Javier Mascherano, who recklessly got himself sent off during last season’s showdown between the teams at Old Trafford, reckons: "It’s a match we need to win if we want to compete for the title. We can do that and push for honours. The fans deserve it."

The trick, of course, is walking the walk as well as talking the talk, as Reds defender Jamie Carragher knows only too well. He admits United have been better than Liverpool in recent derbies, and told BBC Radio Merseyside: "I'm not a great believer in being lucky or unlucky. I'm a big believer in 'you get what you deserve'.

"United over the last few years have probably edged it with us and small details in football make a difference. That's why they've been better than us and that's something we need to liven up.”

Meanwhile, from Old Trafford, there have been some bullish noises too, including former United defender Gary Pallister saying Liverpool will again fail to contest the title this season. He insists the Reds cannot sustain a challenge over the course of the whole season. He even suggests that things could quickly go pear-shaped for Benitez if he a loser again at Anfield.

"I can't see them challenging this year. I thought they might put together a sustained challenge last year and they didn't manage to do so. I don't feel as though they can this year either," he told the Daily Star. “Under Benitez they've been playing for fourth spot. That's not good enough for Liverpool fans. They expect to be up there fighting for league championships - and that hasn't happened. It would have a big effect on their season if they lose. If they lose badly it would be even more damaging. To lose at home to one of your main rivals is a huge blow."

The current United players have been fairly muted about Liverpool. Berbatov has been insisting he’s not lazy; Ryan Giggs has been predicting the Bulgarian will be an instant success for United; and Wayne Rooney has been talking more about resurgent England than the Premiership this week, having ended his 11-month goal drought for the Three Lions with an impressive performance.

But the other significant off-stage noise surrounding this gamer could well come from Liverpool fans planning to protest against the clubs two American owners, George Gillett and Tom Hicks. Will that strike a chord among United fans who wanted nothing to do with the Glazer-buy-out of their club? It should do, but parochial enmity could well mean United fans mocking rather than sympathising with their Scouse rivals.


Liverpool have lost one of their last 16 games in all competitions - a 2-3 reverse at Stamford Bridge at the hands of Chelsea in the Champions League semi-final second leg. They are unbeaten in 10 Premier League matches, of which they’ve won seven and drawn three. Ironically, their last League defeat was a 3-0 loss to Manchester United at Old Trafford in March. And their last home defeat was also by United nine months ago. That 1-0 defeat, inflicted by a Carlos Tevez goal, was Liverpool’s only loss at Anfield in their last 24. But they’ve not beaten a fellow 'Big Four' club in six attempts. This season, the Reds have beaten Sunderland away, Middlesbrough at home and drawn with Aston Villa away in the League, while squeezing through in extra-time against Standard Liege in a Champions League qualifier to secure entry to the lucrative group stage.

United’s last outing was that 2-1 defeat by Zenit St Petersburg in the European Super Cup on 29th August. They’ve played only two Premier League fixtures to date, a 1-1 home draw against Newcastle United and a 1-09 win at Fratton Park against Portsmouth. They’ve won 10, drawn three and lost one of their last 14 Premier League games, collecting 10 points from the last 12 on offer since Chelsea beat the 2-1 away on 26th April. That was United’s first reverse in their last eight games against fellow 'Big Four' clubs.

Last Five Matches


31 Aug: Aston Villa 0-0 Liverpool (EPL)

27 Aug: Liverpool 1-0 Standard Liege (CLQ)

23 Aug: Liverpool 2-1 Middlesbrough (EPL)

16 Aug: Sunderland 0-1 Liverpool (EPL)

13 Aug: Standard Liege 0-0 Liverpool (CLQ)

Manchester United

29 Aug: Man Utd 1-2 Zenit St Petersburg (N) (Super Cup)

25 Aug: Portsmouth 0-1 Man Utd (EPL)

17 Aug: Man Utd 1-1 Newcastle Utd (EPL)

10 Aug: Man Utd 0-0 Portsmouth (N) (Community Shield) (Utd won 3-1 on pens)

04 Aug: Peterborough Utd 0-2 Man Utd (Friendly)



Benitez was given a major boost today when two of his key players, Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, were both declared fit to face United.

Gerrard missed England's 4-1 win in Croatia on Wednesday after undergoing a minor groin operation, and Torres has recovered from a hamstring tear, so both stars are included in Rafa’s squad after successfully completing Friday’s light training session.

"They are both much better," said Benitez. "They came through a full training session this morning. It's important for us to have these two players of quality who can change a game. I'm not surprised they are available because the medical staff have done a good job and the players have been working really hard with the physios to get fit."

Albert Riera is in line to make his Liverpool debut after joining the club from Espanyol on transfer deadline day. But Brazilian midfielder Lucas Leiva will miss the game after a long-haul flight back to Merseyside from international duty in South America. And both Sami Hyypia and Philipp Degen could miss out with hamstring and groin injuries, respectively.

Possible Starting XI: Reina, Arbeloa, Carragher, Skrtel, Dossenaa, Kuyt, Mascherano, Gerrard, Riera, Keane, Torres.

Manchester United

The club’s expensive transfer deadline-day recruit, Dimitar Berbatov, will almost certainly make his debut for the club, despite his fitness levels having been questioned by United’s coaching staff following his arrival from Tottenham.

Ferguson had doubts about the fitness of three potentially key men, but has been boosted by the prospect of having the trio back in contention for United’s first Premier League game in almost three weeks.

Ryan Giggs, Rio Ferdinand and Michael Carrick all now look likely to be fit and available to face Liverpool. Ferdinand missed England's 2-0 victory over Andorra on Saturday because of neck and back injuries, but recovered to play his part in the Three Lions’ resounding 4-1 thrashing of Croatia in Zagreb last night.

Giggs, 34, had been suffering with a hamstring problem but could be involved if he comes through a late fitness test. And Carrick is now expected to be available following an ankle injury.

But Cristiano Ronaldo and Owen Hargreaves are still undergoing treatment.

Possible Starting XI: Van der Sar, Brown, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Anderson, Fletcher, Scholes, Tevez, Rooney, Berbatov.


All eyes will inevitably be on former Tottenham strike partners Robbie Keane and Dimitar Berbatov, now on opposite sides and keen to prove t5hey were worth their respective big fees. Keane has appeared over-anxious so far for the Reds, so a more measure approach to this titanic struggle could pay dividends for him. Trying too hard is not an accusation Berbatov has often had directed at him, but he show more than his usual economy of movement oh his debut for United. Like Keane on moving to Anfield, Berba described his switch to Old Trafford as a ’dream’ (cue yawns). It may well be a dream move for Rooney, whose game has cried out for some time for the sort of vision, touch and guile that Berbatov can provide in the form of telling assists. On the other hand, Jamie Carragher will be at his most dogged and determined in trying to turn the tide in these North-West derbies, and will neither ask nor give a quarter to either United front man.

Betting Recommendation: LiverpooL vs. Manchester United

Rafa Benitez has lined up against Sir Alex Ferguson five times at Anfield since becoming manager of Liverpool and the two sides have played out a 0-0 and four 1-0s - three of them going United's way in the Premier League and one going to the Merseysiders in the FA Cup.

But it's not just head-to-head history that points to a lack of goals on Saturday. Traditionally these are two of the tightest defences in the top flight and that's the case again this term with the pair conceding just two goals so far in a combined five PL matches.

But it's when you assess the goalscorers on each side that the argument grows even stronger. All the likely netbusters - Torres, Ronaldo, Gerrard, Keane, Berbatov - fall into the category of out injured, coming back from injury or bedding in with new teammates and that definitely tips the balance towards a 0-0 stalemate.

Liverpool's last two matches have been goalless at full-time so backing 'no goalscorer' at 15/2 has to be worth a play.

With a single goal settling four of the last five Anfield meetings between the two, backing 1-0 Liverpool at 8/1 and 1-0 Man Utd at 7/1 is also recommended.

Liverpool FC Name Steven Gerrard And Fernando Torres In Squad To Face Man Utd

Liverpool FC have named both Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard in their squad to face Manchester United at Anfield tomorrow.

The duo have been forced out in recent weeks with hamstring and groin problems respectively.

Boss Rafa Benitez is hopeful both may feature at some stage.

"They are both much better," manager Rafael Benitez said.

"They came through a full training session this morning. It wasn’t a very hard session, but they will both be in the squad.

"It’s important for us to have these two players of quality who can change a game.

"I’m not surprised they are available because the medical staff have done a good job and the players have been working really hard with the physios to get fit."

A debut will be handed to new winger Albert Riera, but midfielder Lucas will not be involved.

Provisional squad: Reina, Arbeloa, Aurelio, Carragher, Skrtel, Hyypia, Agger, Dossena, Benayoun, Babel, Riera, Gerrard, Alonso, Mascherano, Plessis, Kuyt, Keane, Torres, Ngog, Cavalieri, El Zhar.

Fan Protests Expected At Anfield & Gallowgate

In both Newcastle and Liverpool, thousands of supporters plan to march in protest against the owners of their respective clubs.

Members of a Liverpool supporters group named Spirit of Shankly intend to march to Anfield in protest against the club’s American co-owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett. According to the group, it will be “a march of passion, a march of anger, a march of red solidarity that roars its message loud and proud.”

The Liverpool protesters plan to meet at the official supporters’ club on Lower Breck Road at 11:00 BST, ahead of the 12:45 kick-off against arch-rivals Manchester United which, it has been reported, Gillett may attend surrounded by tight security.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country in Newcastle, two protests are planned against club owner Mike Ashley‘s regime. The first is by a group called Toon Ultras, who plan to demonstrate against Ashley from 14:00 outside the Milburn Reception.

The Ultras aren’t advocating a boycott of the match but say they “firmly believe that everyone should give their full support towards the players in a match [against Hull City] they should easily get three points from. The protest suggested will have flags, banners and of course non-stop singing, getting as much attention as possible.”

The unofficial Newcastle website has also organised a march, planned for 15:00 opposite Tilley’s Bar. The protesters will walk to St. James’ Park.

The protests are not expected to have a direct impact on Hicks and Gillett, or Ashley, but should put pressure on the owners to sell to more ‘suitable’ stewards, while raising awareness in the media about fans’ dissatisfaction with the way the present owners are running their respective clubs.

Mascherano: Fans Deserve Derby Win

Javier Mascherano is determined to help maintain Liverpool's unbeaten start to the season with a win against Manchester United this weekend.

The first of the Premier League's mega-derbies will take place this Saturday when Sir Alex Ferguson's men travel to Merseyside with the aim of reinforcing their recent superiority over their North West foes.

The Red Devils have been victorious on their last two visits to Anfield, winning 1-0 both times, and have not lost a league game against their rival Reds since February 2004.

Everyone at Liverpool is determined to reverse that trend, and Mascherano believes there is no better time for the club to stake their title claim.

"We have vital games coming up — especially the first one against United," said Argentine midfielder, who was infamously dismissed from last season's clash at Old Trafford.

Mascherano may only have been at Liverpool since January 2007, but his obvious passion and commitment to the club has well and truly won over the fans.

And the 24-year-old is desperate to repay the Kopites' support with a long-overdue victory against their most hated adversaries.

He added: "It’s a match we need to win if we want to compete for the title. We can do that and push for honours. The fans deserve it."

Benitez Keen To Break Duck

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez says victory over champions Manchester United could ignite his side's season.

The Spaniard faces a team he has never beaten in the Premier League and one that has frequently destroyed any hope the Anfield side have had of taking the title.

Liverpool's last home league win against their bitterest rivals was back in 2001. They have lost the last five clashes between the clubs and managed just seven victories in 32 league encounters.

Benitez has managed only one victory over United counterpart Sir Alex Ferguson in nine meetings during his time at Anfield, in the FA Cup in 2006.

The cloud hanging over Liverpool now sees their record of 18 league titles under severe threat, with United just one short of equalling that total.

No wonder Benitez is desperate for a change of fortune.

"These games against top sides are always important. It is just three points on offer but we all know this is different," he said.

"If we can beat them, with our current position in the table, it could be worth more.

"Our confidence would go really high and everyone would be boosted, but it is too soon to be talking about the title.

"We know our record is not good against them, but we feel we are improving. We will see on the pitch how close we are."

It is on the pitch Liverpool's summer signing Robbie Keane will no doubt be trying to prove a point to Ferguson, who expressed "surprise" at the £20million fee Liverpool paid for him.

Benitez, who has named injury doubts Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard in his squad, said: "I was surprised when he questioned the fee for Keane.

"Maybe he should look at how much money they are paying each season for a lot of players.

"The last time we played them they had around £70million worth of players on the bench.

"What was said could motivate Robbie, but then he is a good professional and wants to score against any team.

"If he can score against United, though, it will be massive for him and for us.

"He scored for his country in the recent international break, all he needs to do now is to score in a few games in a row.

"Robbie will score soon. Maybe in 24 hours everything will be okay for him."

Benitez added: "I am not jealous of United's money. I am happy here and in the future I will try to bring in good players, who are maybe cheaper.

"But when these games come around nobody thinks of money out on the pitch. We will concentrate on winning and if we can do it we will be in a better position at the end of the season.

"But to finish above them we have to beat them. If we can do that we will have more confidence for the rest of the campaign."

But Benitez was clearly riled by Ferguson's comment, adding: "Maybe he is surprised because Robbie was so cheap, because they paid over £30million for his former Spurs colleague Berbatov, maybe eventually £35million for Tevez and close to £30million for Ferdinand.

"Robbie is doing a great job for the team, I do not want to put him under any pressure.

"If he plays well for the team and produces three 'assists' then that will satisfy me.

"He can score a lot of goals. Mentally he is strong enough to do that for us."

Much will be made of the two strike partnerships on show. Keane's former Spurs team-mate Dimitar Berbatov will make his Manchester United debut, probably alongside Wayne Rooney.

Keane and Berbatov both scored 23 goals last season, 15 each in the league, and Benitez points out United spent £10million-plus more for their player.

"Berbatov has quality, good movement, but we will have top quality defenders too," said the Spaniard.

"We will have to wait and see until the end of the season to discover what impact Berbatov will have.

"But we feel in Torres and Keane we have a strike partnership that can rival United's.

"I do not think there is a mental problem with our players over not beating United in the league.

"We have beaten them in a cup tie and there is no reason we cannot beat them in the league. All our players passionately want that.

"If we want to be real contenders than we have to beat the top sides. We are getting better but we know that we must improve against the top sides.

"We must be stronger as a team - tactically, mentally, technically - because United are a great team, and a win against them would give us a huge lift."

Rafa Lauds Liverpool Firepower

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez believes he has just as lethal a strike force as Manchester United and has hit back at criticism from Sir Alex Ferguson.

The two North West rivals are preparing to do battle at Anfield on Saturday, live on Sky Sports 1 and HD 1, with Benitez looking to secure a first Premier League victory over United boss Ferguson.

Champions United are expected to name new £30million signing Dimitar Berbatov alongside Wayne Rooney in a formidable frontline, but Benitez is not overly concerned.

The Reds boss feels £20million summer acquisition Robbie Keane and record arrival Fernando Torres, who moved to Merseyside in 2007 and is a slight fitness doubt, pose an equally potent threat.

"If you talk about price we cannot match them because their strikers are worth £60million and ours are worth £40m," Benitez told Sky Sports News.

"But, in terms of quality, our strikers are really good."

Ferguson has admitted he was surprised that Benitez paid a high fee to Tottenham for 28-year-old Keane.

But former Valencia chief Benitez believes Ferguson has also spent liberally over recent years and has pointed to the examples of Owen Hargreaves, Nani and Carlos Tevez.

"Maybe he (Ferguson) has to think about how much money United are spending every year on a lot of players," added Benitez.

"The last game that we played against them they had Hargreaves, Nani and Tevez on the bench. We are talking about £70m."

Benitez also feels that Ferguson's criticism could act as added motivation for Keane, who has yet to open his Liverpool account.

"Robbie is a good professional. He wants to score against any team. If he can score tomorrow it would be massive for him and for us," concluded Benitez.

George Gillett To Attend Liverpool FC v Man Utd Match

GEORGE GILLETT is prepared to brave a hostile atmosphere by attending tomorrow’s Premier League showdown with Manchester United.

The Liverpool co-owner is expected to take his place in the directors’ box for the lunchtime clash with the Old Trafford outfit.

It would be Gillett’s first public appearance on Merseyside since he visited for the last home game against Manchester United nine months ago.

The Anfield club yesterday refused to confirm or deny whether Gillett will be present.

But his possible presence would coincide with fans group Spirit of Shankly staging a major demonstration after the American owners announced further delays to the new stadium on Stanley Park.

Meanwhile, Jamie Carragher has refused to blame bad look for the Reds’ awful record against United under Benitez.

No Liverpool player has even scored in the fixture since Danny Murphy’s winning penalty at Old Trafford in April 2004 and Carragher said: “I’m not a great believer in being lucky or unlucky. I’m a big believer in ‘you get what you deserve’.

“United over the last few years have probably edged it with us and small details in football make a difference. That’s why they’ve been better than us and that’s something we need to liven up.

“It’s a massive game, United and Everton are the ones you look for when the fixture list comes out. Hopefully we can get the three points and that will give us a bit of confidence for the season ahead.”

Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres could yet recover from their respective groin and hamstring injuries to start tomorrow, although the final decision will rest with Benitez.

Andrea Dossena, meanwhile, has been backed to overcome an indifferent start to his Liverpool career by producing the form that has forced his way back into the Italy side.

Dossena, who was 27 yesterday, played the full 90 minutes in a 2-0 win over Georgia on Wednesday.

And Benitez said: “It is good for Dossena to play for his national team because it will give him more confidence.

“We are happy with him because we know that he is a good player and he is working hard but we also know that he can get better.

“He has done okay so far and he performed well in our last game at Aston Villa, but there is still more to come.

“It is not easy to come to a new country to play for a new club and to get used to their system, but Dossena is keen to learn and he will get better with more games and more time.”